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Win, Place, Show: Film Critic Harlan Jacobson says In The Heights is on the Fast Track

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HBO Max
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Anthony Ramos stars in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Movie Version of In The Heights

With the insanely popular and priced Hamilton, show creator Lin-Manuel Miranda built a Broadway bridge to the American Revolution for minority audiences to cross over and inhabit the story. His new film, In the Heights, after a year’s delay due to the pandemic, is both streaming on HBO Max and opened the Tribeca Film Festival that began Wednesday. I took the A train uptown to Washington Heights.

The great achievement of Hamilton was that Lin-Manuel Miranda populated the heroes of the American Revolution with black, brown and Latino actors and used contemporary rap to let minorities live inside our foundational story. Latino Hamilton and Black Jefferson and Burr clashed over what kind of powers the new government should have, once Black George Washington left the scene. This sure wasn’t 1776, the musical. The Hamilton casting by contrast may seem like it was why-not simple, but it was revolutionary all by itself for color and race scrambling historical characters.

Miranda made his breakthrough with In the Heights in 2008 on Broadway, laying down the rap in a musical celebration of Washington Heights, that upper, upper West Side that stretches from the 160s to the 218th St Bridge, laced by the #1 and A trains. When the story opens, it’s three days until the 2003 great Northeast Blackout. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), the lead character, begins a sit-down story for his clamoring kids that takes us all back to that time, when the play’s conceit was that almost every young Latino in Washington Heights either wanted out, was planning to get out or was being pushed out.

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HBO Max
Lead actor Anthony Ramos (Far right) shows off his many talents in Lin-Manuel Miranda's In The Heights

This is a good moment for the film’s lead actor, Anthony Ramos, 29, a Brooklyn raised Puerto Rican New Yorker, who had a supporting role in Hamilton and replaces Miranda here as the neighborhood guy, watching uptown slip away and contemplating reversing his Papi’s journey back to the DR. You can almost draw a line directly back to Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty, the postwar butcher hanging out in the 1950s on a Bronx street corner. But Usnavi is never at a loss for things to do. With him, it’s just a question of where he’s going to end up doing them: Didja ever have the feeling that ya wanted to go, but ya wanted to stay? Old show business lives discreetly inside Miranda’s live-wire characters, and his lead is a regular José who got named for a US Navy destroyer that inspired his father in NY harbor. You know… US Navy.

Now, Usnavi contemplates whether the corner bodega version of the time-honored immigrant anchor business – the cigar, newsstand and candy stores of Jews, Irish, Germans etc. of 120 years ago—has hit a dead end. Yet, everyone pops in -- Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and at least one Havana grandma and everyone’s doomed spiritual anchor, Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia -- for every Latino need under the NY sun, triggering the heart palpitations of the young, a little folk wisdom here and there and above all a sense of belonging somewhere, of community, of terra sancta, however it looks to the Anglos passing through and possibly eyeing the real estate. “Say it,” Usnavi constantly tells his kids, “Take the A train to 181st St and take the elevator.” Say it about all of Washington Heights, “so it doesn’t disappear.”

That, in fact, is the drive motor of all Quiara Alegrìa Hudes’ and Miranda’s wonderful rap story -- where the characters fall on the question of leaving vs staying:

Usnavi has a sueñito, a little dream, of going back to the DR and reviving a café his father abandoned.

His wingman little cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz), is staying in place but puts him in the path of Vanessa(Melissa Barrera), who plans her escape as a fashion designer downtown and sends Usnavi practically into a dead faint every time she cuts across his bow to get to the refrigerator for a Coke.

Nina (Leslie Grace), the neighborhood smarty carries everyone’s aspirations but after freshman year is struggling with the rich kids at Stanford, where her father Kenny, played by Jimmy Smits -- now graying, middle aged and hopefully starting a new career trajectory--wants her to stay so badly he’s cashing out the car service he started with two red Cadillacs, was it?, for tuition.

That means he’s letting go his dispatcher, Benny, played by Corey Hawkins with so much stage presence and versatility he nearly swipes the show from Ramos. Benny loves Nina, who left him behind for Stanford, where she doesn’t want to be.

And Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) is moving her hair salon--the obligatory plot nerve center where even the wigs on the shelf listen in--to the Grand Concourse for cheaper rent.

That’s what Miranda originally captured: the plague that preceded the pandemic, the gentrification that was re-making the city as a fortress for money and robbing it of vitality, flavor, and its future.

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HBO Max
A scene from Lin-Manual Miranda's In The Heights

Plotting isn’t the point or the strong suit here — there’s never a doubt where this all ends up: where Dorothy ended up in 1939 in The Wizard of Oz. There’s no place like home. What’s wonderful about In the Heights is how rousingly New York it all feels. With the same verve that Spike Lee got Black Brooklyn down 30 years ago in Do The Right Thing, Miranda sees the whole Latino color spectrum of his New Yorkers and lets the world that only knows them as a rumor see them, too.

How serendipitous as the film, which had a torturous production journey before the pandemic, now comes off the shelf from lockdown. How liberating to live through In the Heights’ musical set pieces of hundreds of vitaminized Latinos rocking the streets, performing choreography by Chris Scott with a Latino nod to Esther Williams and a Busby Berkeley overhead shot, of course, in the majesty of Highbridge pool — rousing the room in the sheer wished-for magic of the New York that Miranda longs for, not just the pre-pandemic New York, but before even that, before the plague of money that ate the city, and the city became a gentrified game preserve for pampered purebreds in $3000 per room apartment rentals done up by Restoration Hardware.

Miranda has a big musical heart for New York, playful, hot, young. So too with Hudes, who adapted the play for John Chu to direct onscreen more tenderly than his breakout hit, Crazy Rich Asians. Chu brought his editor from that film, Myron Kerstein to edit Alice Brooks’ cinematography here of big set pieces with wide shots and close-ups in rapid fire staccato momentum that ripples through the big, saturated colors in the design scheme.

In the Heights is about place, people in place. The filmmaking team opens up Hudes’ play to the places in the film. I lived there for 20 years, the 181st stop on the A Train was mine. Ft Washington, Broadway, St. Nicholas, Audubon and Amsterdam Avenues, crisscrossed by Nagle and Dyckman are all familiar territory. I see the building in the closing credits where Miranda lives – around the corner from my old building -- and can still feel the ghostly George Washington Bridge lurking and blinking in the background over my shoulder. It could also be because my son, Samson Jacobson, was raised there and who as location manager knew where to look on a film that is named for its location. All of it is A-team, A-train work: including producer Anthony Bregman, who in the last 20 years with the likes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has gravitated toward the conundrums of city people.

Close to what he thinks is the end of his time in New York, Usnavi takes in the scene at the corner he’s about to abandon for the DR and raps, “In five years, when this is all rich people and hipsters, I’m gonna miss this little corner and my raggedy little business.”

No need, at least on film, where it will live in this splendid fashion forever.

Now on to the rest of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.